Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Immigration Change You Didn’t Hear About By Laura Burdick

In the midst of the nationwide debate over immigration reform, our immigration system is about to undergo a significant that will affect a diversifying America.

On February 4, after a review process that lasted more than a year, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) released its long-awaited revision of the Form N-400 — the application form for naturalization that all green card holders must fill out when they apply for citizenship. The new form will be required starting in early May. 

Why is this change important? Because immigration and citizenship have an important socioeconomic impact on American society, and this change affects the nation’s 8.8 million legal permanent residents and the hundreds of local service providers working to help them naturalize.

At 21 pages, the new form is more than twice as long as the old one, which was only 10 pages.  The reason is several additions, including about 40 new questions in Part 11 relating to good moral character, military service, group membership and past involvement with terrorism, persecution, torture or genocide. 

USCIS announced that while the eligibility requirements for naturalization have not changed, the additional questions relating to terrorism, persecution, torture or genocide are necessitated by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 and Child Soldier Prevention Act of 2008.  The new form also includes additional questions about the applicant’s parents, current spouse and prior spouse(s), and it requires additional documentation from applicants who failed to register for the Selective Service before age 26. 

But the new N-400 also includes several changes that will make the form more user-friendly. It has clearer instructions for completing the sections on employment history, education history and children, plus a new question relating to the age/residency exemptions for the English language test. An old question asking applicants to list all trips outside the U.S. of 24 hours or more since they became a lawful permanent resident has been changed to request only those trips taken during the last five years.

The longer form has many implications for applicants, legal service providers and USCIS adjudicators. Potential applicants may be intimidated by the new form and may find it less accessible, and this can result in more people who need application assistance. Legal service providers may need more time to complete and review the form, and thus may need to raise their fee for N-400 processing. The additional security-related questions make it more important than ever for representatives to obtain a copy of the applicant's immigration file in certain cases before they are able to complete the N-400. USCIS adjudicators may also need more time to review the form and conduct naturalization interviews. All in all this change could increase N-400 processing times.

The old N-400 form will continue to be accepted through May 2, 2014, which makes the next couple of months critical for local service providers and national organizations working on naturalization issues. The New Americans Campaign (NAC), a nationwide collaborative pushing for immigrant integration, has uploaded the old form to its website to assist people who want to complete the process before the change is implemented. Organizations affiliated with the NAC, such as the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), will hold webinars to provide training on the new form for the hundreds of service providers looking for help. Service providers will in turn intensify naturalization efforts over the next couple of months, all the while preparing to work with the new form.

But more important, the transition from old form to new presents a golden opportunity for legal permanent residents to take that final step toward integrating fully into American society. They can do it in the next couple of months and take advantage of a simpler form, or they can do it after the change takes effect. Either way, service providers stand ready to assist.

 Laura Burdick is a Field Support Coordinator at CLINIC, Inc., a national network of Catholic and community legal immigration programs working to promote and protect the dignity of immigrants. CLINIC, Inc. is one of the national partners in the New Americans Campaign, a nationwide collaborative emphasizing citizen integration.

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